Lists and Real Life

“Knife fight or sex are the only two acceptable answers, remember?” asked Max. I had just told him when people asked me about the stitches on my face, I was going to say I’d been in a car accident. But that excuse isn’t on the list.

I have various lists I keep in my head. Not like David Lettermen who counts down his lists following Mark Twain’s method of going from the odd to the outlandish (read the list of what people will bet on in Twain’s short story, “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and you’ll see what I mean). My first list, started in my childhood, was promises for when I became an adult. Sadly, I didn’t write that list down and have forgotten much of it save for three items:

  1. Buy good Halloween candy. I think this is something of a universal promise of children to their adult selves yet amazingly many adults forget what it was like to get those generic nougat candies wrapped in orange and black wax paper. Sadly, we don’t get trick or treaters at our new home, not a one. Last year, the first year we were here, our teenagers who had stayed home to hand out the candy were the delighted beneficiaries of my candy largesse.
  2. Do all you can to help your kids’ acne go away. Again, a no brainer if, like me, you were ever a teen with acne. My ex-husband didn’t ever have acne, which is perhaps why he told the court that I was inappropriately spending money on non-essential medicine when I took Claude to the dermatologist when he was fifteen.  Claude’s skin had erupted like a painful field of spring dandelions and he could not shave his face. It seems the judge had acne as a teen too because he found Claude’s expenses to be entirely reasonable.
  3. Buy high quality, soft toilet paper. My mother, who was a cocktail waitress, stole the commercial POM brand toilet paper from the bars she worked in. You could use POM teepee to scrub floors it’s so rough. Charmin or Cottonelle are the only brands allowed in my house. (Yes, it makes us fall short yet again on the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra because these brands don’t use post-consumer contents, but this is a promise I am keeping)

“Knife fight or sex” fall under the list of Rules for Life, as the only responses to questions regarding physical injury in order to avoid going into the mundane details of what really happened. Saying the stitches on my face were caused by sex would only encourage further questioning. A knife fight, however, holds some water for the three incisions on the right side of my face found just under my eyebrow, below my nostril and on my cheek. The dark blue sutures add to the effect. Little Leif asked if he could kiss my boo-boos when he first saw them, but when he leaned in and looked closer, he changed his mind and just kissed my mouth instead. Fair enough.

The knife-wielding assailant was a plastic surgeon and the scene was a full-blown surgical suite at a nearby hospital this past Monday. It seemed overkill to me and I said so. I was told that insurance providers require it nowadays (and if you want to know the real reason why American health care is more expensive, with costs rising faster, than in any other first world country, look no further than insurance companies, but I digress). If I had known I was going to be required to wear a hospital gown, I might have shaved my legs for the occasion (I stopped some weeks ago when we went from skirt to pants weather).

Overkill indeed. I had removed from my face what the paperwork described as “lesions.” Years ago, I called these same spots beauty marks as I felt they were not unattractive, think of the character Peppy Miller being given a signature beauty mark above her lip in the film The Artist, which helped make her a star. But with time, and especially pregnancy, my beauty marks grew. And grew. Morphing into witches’ moles, I could have cackled, “Candy, my pretty?” at Halloween had any little beggars come to our door. When pregnant with Lyra, these grotesque growths also became suspiciously itchy. And so, after consulting with my doctor, I decided to trade in lesions for scars.

You find out how good your insurance is when you file a claim. The same it seems is true with Rules for Life. I wish just one person would play along with me. Instead, many friends and acquaintances have looked at me with a mix of horror and sincere concern and ask What happened? Or, Are you okay? And when I say, as I have many times this week, Knife fight! They say, come on, really, Were you in a car accident? (What did I tell you, Max?)

I like the idea of being mysterious, but I have lived a relatively filter free life. It’s not something I chose but rather, like Turret’s syndrome, what was in my mind used to flow unencumbered down the path to my mouth and out a wide delta of public speech. An insanely acrimonious divorce helped me cultivate a modicum of privacy and I no longer tell anyone everything. But when friends are clearly worried by my gruesome appearance, I cannot toss it off with humor. I cave and tell them I had bits taken off.

You may ask, Why not hide the evidence under Band Aids?  Sure, there’d be some questions, but perhaps not as many. First of all, the surgeon said not to, but I’m hardly a model patient and have bucked medical recommendations aplenty. I’ll tell you the real reason: because I know what I like and how I like to look. And I’m mighty comfortable in my skin and don’t need to hide my cosmetic imperfections. That is now. Consider this quote:

Those “precious middle years—those beautiful years when a man finally understands what he is about to lose and is eager to make the most of it.”

I read this line in the novel Suite Française while waiting in pre-op for my “surgery.” Published in French in 2004 and translated to English in 2006, it was written in the early 1940s by Irène Némirosvsky and left with her daughter when the Germans sent the author to Auschwitz in 1942, where she died soon thereafter at age 39. Only in the 1990s did her daughter realize it was a novel and not a collection of handwritten notes. The history of this manuscript and its author is as compelling as the novel itself, which is about the German occupation of France during World War II. For more see: Irène Némirovsky – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Most days, being middle aged feels like a gift. Yes, I feel osteoarthritis in my right knee when the weather turns cold and dry as it has this past month. Yes, there is only so much good lotions can do for aging skin. But I also see that I’ve likely lived more years than I have years left to live and perhaps therein lies liberation. I’ve already had eight more years on this planet than Irène Némirosvsky, how have I made the most of it? I ask myself this almost everyday. The quotidian—I have loved my children and by all accounts raised them well—is that enough for me? It is important, but the fact that I beg the question reveals the answer. No, it is not. So far mothering my children has been the most important work of my life and perhaps it always will be. But it is not enough.

Not everyone who is lucky enough to live a long life becomes introspective, philosophical or spiritual (I know several choice examples of those who haven’t and I’m sure you do too), but many do. A good part of that comes with letting go. I will never look as good as I did when I was nineteen. But at nineteen I didn’t like the way I looked and now, at nearly 47, I do. At nineteen, you would never have found me in public with stitches all over my face—not if I could help it. But at 46, I not only carry on, I rather enjoy the way the grocery store cashiers struggle with the impulse to stare at my wounds. (A wee obnoxious, I know)

Still to this day women are steeped in a societal stew that encourages us to be the objects of desire. I know I was. But such an object has no real desire of its own and truly many women still struggle to know what it is they want. I know I have. Many women “d’un certain âge,” as the French put it, become lost when they can no longer trade in on their looks. And who can blame them? Consider the film Searching for Debra Winger, which directly addresses the fact that few Hollywood actresses, regardless of talent, continue to get good roles after the age of 40. (Searching for Debra Winger – Movie Trailer – YouTube)

At the top of the Rules of Life is: Don’t let someone else give you your rules to live by. That’s not as easy as it sounds and it certainly wasn’t always the case. It took me over 40 years to shrug off the rules for womanly living complicit with keeping me from following my life’s desires. Even though I studied French feminism in college, even though I had a subscription to Ms. Magazine early on, even though in my 20s I intellectually knew the very points I am making right now in this post. At 41, I realized what I was going to lose and woke up to make the most of it. The choices I made as a result were scary at the time. But I saw that death without living was far scarier and a very real possiblity. It happens all the time.


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